Feasibility of a Cyber Attack on National Critical Infrastructure by a Non-State Violent Extremist Organization


This study describes the possibility of a Violent Extremist Organization’s (VEO’s) capacity to perform an attack upon national critical infrastructure and key assets causing “mass disruption” or “mass destruction”. Emphasis is placed upon Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems in an effort to identify vulnerabilities that a non-state actor could utilize to conduct a cyberattack, including the energy sector’s architecture, potential vulnerabilities, and limitations. An emerging VEO’s ideology, capacity, cyber sophistication, and target type are evaluated. An analysis and discussion of an attack scenario’s results is followed by limitations, conclusions, and recommendations for future areas of study.


College of Business Administration, University of Nebraska, Omaha

Nathan Armold is currently serving as the Chief of the Network Operations Center in the Information Technology Operations Division, United States Strategic Command, Offutt AFB, Nebraska.  In this capacity, he provides operational IT expertise and leadership for a team of network defense and network operation professionals who are charged with the day-to-day operation, maintenance, and defense of the USSTRATCOM network infrastructure.  Mr. Nathan Arnold served as a US Army, Non-Commissioned Officer for seven years as an Information Systems Operator/Computer Analyst prior to continuing service with the DoD as a government contractor.  In 2009, Mr. Arnold was selected for a System Engineering position in the IT Operations Division, USSTRATCOM, Offutt AFB, NE, as a Department of Air Force civilian.  In his tenure at USSTRATCOM, he has quickly risen through the ranks and has held positions as a Deputy and Chief of Data Center Operations, Deputy and Chief of IT Operations Division.  Mr. Arnold was 1 of 10 out of 1,300 eligible applicants, handpicked by senior executive board to be a Leadership Fellow—a Graduate-level program between U.S. Strategic Command and the University of Nebraska focused on enhancing demonstrated leadership skills and posturing Fellows for senior responsibilities in the Department of Defense.

Photo of Dr. William R. Mahoney

School of Interdisciplinary Informatics University of Nebraska-Omaha
Omaha, NE, United States

William R. Mahoney, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Information Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Mahoney is also a principal investigator for the Scholarship for Service program–a student aid program for cybersecurity students managed by the National Science Foundation. His research areas include code obfuscation, reverse engineering and anti-reverse engineering techniques, as well as vulnerability analysis, particularly with respect to critical infrastructure equipment. He regularly teaches in both the Cybersecurity and Computer Science areas and is a reviewer for several information warfare and cybersecurity publications and conferences.

Photo of Gina  Ligon

Department of Management University of Nebraska at Omaha Omaha, Nebraska

Dr. Gina Ligon is an associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and serves as the Director of Research and Development in the Center of Collaboration Science (CCS). She earned a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology with a minor in measurement and statistics from the University of Oklahoma. She is a member of the National Consortium of Studies of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Since arriving at UNO, she has been awarded more than $1 million in grants   and   contracts   with   principal   investigator awards totalling approximately $400,000. She currently is the principal investigator on a grant from the Department of Homeland Security examining the leadership and performance of transnational Violent Extremist Organisations (VEOs,) and is the originator of the Leadership of the Extreme and Dangerous for Innovative   Results (LEADIR) database.   She   has worked with Department of Defense agencies through grants and contracts focused on markers of violent ideological groups, leadership assessment, organisational innovation, and succession planning for scientific positions. Prior to joining UNO, she was a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Villanova University. She also worked as a management consultant in St. Louis with the firm Psychological Associates, partnering with Fortune 500 organisations on the implementation of leader development and succession planning initiatives. Her research interests include violent ideological groups, expertise and leadership development, and collaboration management. She has published more than 40 peer-reviewed articles in the areas of leadership, innovation, and violent groups.

Department of Psychology,University of Nebraska, Omaha

Mackenzie Harms is starting her fourth year as a doctoral student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Psychology, with a minor in Mathematics, as well as a masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. In her time at UNO, Mackenzie has worked on several projects applying principles of organizational science, collaboration, and leadership to the study of ideological and other non-conventional organizations. Harms has assisted on the L.E.A.D.I.R. project funded through START (Study for Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism), in which she helped develop a historiometric content coding scheme to analyse the leadership of violent extremist organizations, including facets of performance not previously looked at, such as brand image, malevolent innovation, and organizational sustainability. She has presented this research at several national and international conferences, including the International Studies Association, the American Psychological Association, the Academy of Management, and the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Harms is currently working on several projects co-funded by the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) investigating deterrence effectiveness against both state and non-state actors. Her research interests include leadership, innovation, information search, cognition, violent ideological organizations, cyber-based communication, influence techniques, radicalism, and deterrence.

Journal of Information Warfare

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